Portrait at Army Medical Museum Links Generations
June 4, 2007
By Minnie Jones
FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas (Army News Service, June 4, 2007) - Lt. Col. Edwin Kellam has more to look forward to than his annual field trip to Fort Sam Houston visiting sites with his senior Junior ROTC class every year; he also gets to see his father, so to speak.
A portrait of his father, 1st Sgt. Belo Kellam, is showcased at the Army Medical Department Museum. A world-renowned artist from Austria-Hungary, Baron Rudolph Charles von Ripper, painted 1st Sgt. Kellam's portrait in the 1940s.
Mr. Von Ripper, an Austrian-born aristocrat and European-trained artist, was known for his grotesque, anti-Nazi etchings and paintings of his military experiences in the U.S. Army. He fled Austria in the 1930s to avoid further persecution from the Nazis, who killed his mother and father and stole the family's wealth. After his exodus, his sole desire was to kill Nazis in retaliation. Von Ripper's desire was so strong that he became a soldier of fortune and was wounded many times while serving in the French Foreign Legion and the Spanish Loyalist air force.
1st Sgt. Kellam and Mr. von Ripper's paths crossed in 1942, when von Ripper joined the Army and was stationed in El Paso, Texas. 1st Sgt. Kellam was the first sergeant at the William Beaumont Army Medical Center, where Mr. von Ripper was assigned.
The story goes that Mr. von Ripper, in his desperation to fight the Nazis, pestered 1st Sgt. Kellam about transferring to Europe so he could be put on the frontlines to fight the Nazis. 1st Sgt. Kellam allowed him to complete the request for transfer, and after a year of determination, Mr. von Ripper finally got his wish and was transferred to Europe.
Before leaving El Paso, Private von Ripper, out of gratitude for 1st Sgt. Kellam's help with getting his transfer, asked 1st Sgt. Kellam if he could paint his portrait. On a Sunday afternoon, around lunchtime to about 5 p.m., Mr. von Ripper arrived at Kellam's home on post and painted his portrait.
"My mother made him a fried chicken dinner that night, and that was the last they saw of him," Lt. Col. Kellam said.
The picture was stored away until 1st Sgt. Kellam completed his four-year stint in the Army and moved back to Robstown, Texas. The portrait was then pulled out of storage, framed and hung in the family's home for more than 30 years.
One day while reading an article in a Retired Officer Association magazine, Lt. Col. Kellam's wife, Monna, noticed an article on Mr. von Ripper. She recalled many times hearing the story about the artist from Austria stationed at El Paso. She compared the paintings in the article to the portrait that hung in Lt. Col. Kellam's parents' home, and questioned her husband about it. Lt. Col. Kellam and his wife never met the artist, but the article revealed many details about the Austrian-born Soldier's life, including his first assignment in El Paso.
Lt. Col. Kellam began to wonder if this person could be one in the same.
"I called the person who wrote the article in Virginia, and told him that I thought that the portrait of my father, which has been in my parents' house for all these years - was drawn by the same person that he wrote about in the article," Lt. Col. Kellam said. "So he had me take pictures of it. I sent them to him in the mail in Virginia, and sure enough he wrote back and said it is exactly the same, there is no doubt that this is the same person."
Lt. Col. Kellam donated the portrait to the museum in September 2004.
"I felt like this famous artist had two places where his painting could be on display - Iowa is one place, because he was assigned to a unit from Iowa in Europe where he became famous and a war hero, they have a lot of his artwork there at the National Guard Museum, or this museum here. I got hold of the curator here and told him the story - that I had a portrait, showed him a picture of the portrait, and asked them if they would like to have it in their museum. They said 'yes.'" Lt. Col. Kellam said.
1st Sgt. Kellam's and Mr. von Ripper's paths never crossed again after that short encounter in El Paso. 1st Sgt. Kellam served four years in the U.S. Army and was honorably discharged, and returned to his hometown in Robstown, Texas to settle down.
The following year, Mr. von Ripper became a naturalized U.S. citizen and was assigned to the North African War Art Unit. He also served with the 34th Infantry Division, and was awarded the Purple Heart in 1943; he was cited for bravery under fire in 1944. After the war, he received two Guggenheim fellowships. He lived briefly in Connecticut before moving to Spain in 1945. Von Ripper's artwork is represented in numerous private collections throughout the United States, in the Museum of Modern Art and the Brooklyn Museum, and in Europe.
(Minnie Jones writes for the Fort Sam Houston Public Information Office.)